Children and language change

Sydney M Lamb smlamb at OWLNET.RICE.EDU
Fri Jan 19 20:22:53 UTC 1996

Spike seems to be talking about (1) semantic and lexical change, and also
about (2) change defined as change from the adult norm.  If we think instead
of (1) phonological change and of (2) change defined as changes within
the linguistic system of the individual (a cognitively oriented
viewpoint), we get a quite different picture.

Consider first change in the cognitive orientation.  It takes place
most rapidly during childhood, the earlier the more rapid; continues
throughout adolescence and for mentally active people throughout
adulthood too, but for most it slows down more and more.  Also, it
operates much more at phonological levels in childhood.  Throughout the
lifetime, both in childhood and later, the changes are of two types (to
an observer, though not necessarily involving two diff mechanisms): (1)
those which bring the system into closer alignment with those of others
in the speech community, or some subcommunity, (2) innovations such as
new slang terms.  The latter are much less common than the former, for
some people we could probably say they are rare; the
former are much more common in the earlier stages of life than later.

Considering now phonological change --- the general process would seem to
be that the child keeps adapting his/her system to bring it closer to
that of others up to some point at which he/she is satisfied with the
effectiveness of his/her communication.  This may or may not be a point
at which the phonological system is the same as that of the previous
generation.  If the child has not perceived a given contrast, for example
w- : wh- , it won't ever get learned.

The result, from the macroscopic point of view (i.e. what we usually
have meant by the term linguistic change, rather than the cognitive
view), if enough kids do this, is a phonological
change in the language or dialect.  An interesting thing about this
type of change is that it really seems to be phonological, a change of
phonological rather than lexical elements --- as opposed to a change in
pronunciation acquired in adulthood, which takes place lexeme by lexeme.
The former type is necessarily of the Ausnahmslosigkeit variety, while
the latter is not, unless over time it spreads widely throughout the lexicon.

These observations may already be in the literature somewhere; if so I
will happily acknowledge that I haven't done my homework.

Syd Lamb .

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